Now look closer.
That is what the Blanton Museum of Art urges you do after five years spent reimagining, planning and executing a complete rehang of the permanent collection at the 10-year-old University of Texas spot, beloved by locals, tourists and students alike.
Walking around the museum’s second floor in preparation for the official unveiling on Feb. 11 (gala) and Feb. 12 (general public), one notices that there is more art (almost twice as many pieces), a new emphasis on the collection’s strengths (works on paper, etc.), better routing (fewer pass-through corridors), a few rarely exhibited pieces (discovered in the vaults), more coherent groupings and explanations (in English and Spanish), completely new galleries (including ones dedicated to video, plus Pre-Columbian and Colonial Latin American), strikingly colorful wall tinting (to set off the Old Master paintings), more art in public spaces (jazzing them up) and a new focus on engaging each work of art.
“We have a new museum in Austin,” proclaims Director Simone Wicha. “I wanted the Blanton’s experience to represent the personality we embody at the museum — energetic, smart, fun, friendly, curious, sophisticated and collaborative. My challenge to the team was for us to reconsider the museum in a way that was more visually arresting, more thought-provoking and nationally innovative.”
By rearranging the walls, openings and doors, the Blanton now almost forces the viewer to slow down.
“The old configuration showcased works in corridor style,” Wicha explains. “And the galleries were set up in a long loop. The museum has changed the architectural layout and design of our galleries to encourage more stopping to look at art.”
Although the visitor now progresses from one significant era to another in the American and Latin American galleries, the European painting, mostly from the Suida-Manning Collection — and confined to a particular time and geographic place — is no longer hung chronologically. Rather, it rolls out thematically, including a grand salon-style hanging that almost covers the walls of one gallery, instead of positioning the art exclusively at eye level. Luckily, this is how the artists originally intended it to be seen.
“The new team focused on identifying the very best works in the European collection, leading with the best works and identifying the stories that they were telling,” Wicha says. “The flip side of this is in Latin American and American; there was a lack of chronology in the old galleries.”
The extremely popular Cildo Meireles installation that spreads out a pool of bright pennies underneath hanging bones was cleaned and opened up to natural light.
What about the plaster casts of classical sculptures that were used for decades to teach art and culture? They’ve been moved downstairs to some educational, research and meeting rooms off the lobby, where they’ve been given better (meaning three-dimensional), even if less prominent, views.
Now all that remains is to see whether guests feel invited to return repeatedly to visit their old friends in the permanent collection.
“What the team has produced makes me endlessly proud,” Wicha says. “They have raised the museum to new heights, and there are so many ideas we still have planned for the future.”
BLANTON STAFF ON THE NEW LOOK
Deputy director for curatorial affairs and curator of prints and drawings
What it means to me: The rehang has been the first project on which I’ve focused since taking up my new position here in September. It’s been an amazing way to learn about the collection in more depth. I’ve come in on the tail end of a very long process, but there is some advantage to having a fresh set of eyes. One of the things I care most about as a curator is how art objects look together and speak to one another in a gallery. That may sound obvious, but it is a problem that can be infinitely refined. A museum space with art in it should feel right and somewhat effortless but still coherent.
What it means for Austin: We hope Austinites will feel more welcome, more comfortable and will find many reasons to keep returning to the Blanton. The gallery entrances and directional signs have been rethought in order to clarify how visitors can approach their visit. We made a special effort to help visitors better navigate through the galleries once in them. I’m not sure how much of an identity the Blanton’s permanent collection has had in the community, but with a strong emphasis now on our strengths — Latin American art, works on paper, European painting, and modern and contemporary art — we hope the collection’s character and quality will be more apparent and cohesive. Permanent collections are, for me, at the heart of any great museum.
Curator of Latin American art
What it means to me: I worked at the Blanton (and the Huntington) while I was in graduate school here, helping the first curator of Latin American art. Now, many years later, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to share with our visitors the amazing collection that inspired me to become a curator of Latin American art in the first place. Also, it has been gratifying for me to see how the collection has evolved and grown over the years.
What it means for Austin: Many people in Austin know that the Blanton was a pioneer in the field of Latin American art, but for the last decade, visitors have only had a glimpse of that interest, through temporary exhibitions and programs. The new installation of the permanent collection will be the first time in our current building that major movements and ideas in Latin American art have been represented.
Curator of modern and contemporary art
What it means to me: It’s been deeply rewarding to rethink how we present the collection. The main modern and contemporary gallery felt a bit like a bowling alley before — it was a beautiful, open space, but we found that its large scale often overwhelmed visitors. We have created more intimate spaces for viewing art, and that has allowed us to tell more stories with our galleries. What feels particularly ambitious about the Blanton’s reinstallation is how many new areas we are presenting for the first time. Our modern and contemporary art galleries now open with Native American art, a mix of Navajo rugs, amazing drawings on ledger paper and 20th-century pots by the acclaimed Pueblo ceramicist Maria Martinez.
What it means for Austin: I am excited to be sharing so many incredible recent acquisitions — among them, works by Susan Philipsz, Vincent Valdez, Charles White and Sonya Clark. When I arrived at the Blanton, four years ago, I noticed that abstract painting was one of the collection’s strengths. Since then, with the help of many generous people in the community, I have tried to really diversify the kind of art we present. Visitors will notice a lot more figurative art, more works that grapple with complex and challenging social and political issues of our time, and art that reflects a much broader variety of perspectives and voices.
Director of collections and exhibitions
What it means to me: The entire project has meant an opportunity to get to know our collection better. We have worked extensively with a team of conservators from across the state to treat several works in all the curatorial areas. Taking care of the collection is our primary responsibility, and this project has provided a wonderful opportunity to invest resources in the permanent collection. The end result will be beautiful in the galleries, but in addition, the time spent researching and working closely with each work of art will have provided our museum with valuable information for our permanent records.
What it means for Austin: The Blanton provides a unique opportunity to engage with art in the city of Austin. Our permanent collection has amazing depth in several areas, making it a perfect place for students and the general visitor to learn something new in every visit. With this reinstallation project, we have almost doubled the number of works of art on display from the permanent collection.
Director of education and academic affairs
What it means to me: My main role was to work with the curatorial teams on developing an approach to interpreting the collection. We committed ourselves to writing in a straightforward style for curious adults who may not have much background in art history. Further, we agreed that different works of art demanded different approaches to interpretation, and I am confident that visitors will appreciate the clarity and relevance of the information on our new wall labels. We also produced some playful printed guides and family-oriented kits with art supplies that encourage close looking and conversation.
What it means for Austin: This reimagined Blanton will send a clear signal of “welcome/bienvenidos!” Visitors are going to love the surprising new sculpture by Mexico City-based Thomas Glassford — floating mysteriously in the museum’s atrium space. Each gallery space now offers a brief explanation of its organizing principle in both English and Spanish. The Blanton has always been a welcoming space with an important collection, which is now presented with the intention to surprise and delight, provoke thinking and discussion, and demonstrate the powerful connections we can find between our lived experience and diverse visual traditions.